Starnes&Shah are partners in both music and life

With one half of this female duo from Dallas and the other from Lebanon (in the Middle East), the distinct sound of Zilpha Starnes (keyboard and vocals) and Dania Abu-Shaheen (guitar and vocals)–better known as Starnes&Shah–can be heard in both their introspective acoustic ballads and memorable rock melodies. The duo’s newest 12-track album–Shilling for Dreamtown–is also their fourth studio project, complete with all of the harmonies, lyrical poetry and indie cred that their fans have come to expect from the two Sarah Lawrence grads.

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As they get ready to hit the road this fall to promote the new album with live shows throughout New England and the Northeast, they reveal what life’s like collaborating as a couple and why they still keep their day jobs.

AfterEllen.com: When did you first meet? How did you first start working together musically?

Dania: We met in the summer of 2004 as roommates. We started singing together in the fall of 2005. I had been playing music on my own in New York for a couple years. I knew Zilpha could sing, so one day I asked her to help me work out a harmony for a new song. Our voices clicked, and we decided to develop our sound and start performing together. We got our start playing the open-mic folk scene in New York. As the years went by, the music evolved and we were able to add other musical elements to get to our current sound.

AE: You have a new album dropping in November–what can you tell us about it?

Zilpha: We’re really excited about this one because we feel that it’s our most honest album to date. The new songs are more introspective than ever before. Dania loves to tell stories in her songs. This time the major narrative thread is our story, what it’s like to be us.

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AE: What inspired the new music?

Dania: Mostly our own lives. I wanted the album to tell our story and the different characters we play as struggling artists, working women, loyal partners, yearning expats, etc.

AE: Where does the album title come from exactly?

Dania: There were two things that set the tone for this record, one, ending our twenties and two, marking our seventh year of being indie musicians. These milestones made us take a step back and evaluate our lives. There is some weird, perceived list of things you should accomplish by 30 that really stresses people out. One of those things is being “successful.” When people think about successful performers or artists, they generally associate them with fame and monetary success.

When we started, we were two chicks at open mics, singing, drinking, making friends and enjoying hearing other people’s music. It was a fun and exciting time, and we paid no mind to those ideas of success. As the band progressed and we got older, we got a little freaked out and started to feel like we had to fulfill those requirements for success to justify continuing the project.

Suddenly, the focus had to be on the bottom line of popularity or financial success before the music. So, then we were running from photo shoot to video shoot, frantically printing show invitations, canvassing on foot, booking tons of gigs, promoting by phone, online, in person, and packing venues to cut the mustard. The results included great shows, press and that whole deal, but we were disillusioned. Still, we felt obligated to slap on a smile and pretend like we were all about living the dream in New York City, the biggest dream town of them all. This made me think of being a shill. I realized that we were living for a dream that wasn’t really aligned with our original creative values, and we promoted that way of living because were desperately hoping the payback would be success and eventually fulfillment. We were Shilling For Dreamtown.

There was a lot of agony and shame in realizing that we had gotten so off track chasing some perceived idea of success. So, this record is the story of recognizing our errors, hating ourselves, forgiving ourselves and reconciling with our first love of music. We thought we were doing the “right thing” but there is no right thing, there’s only “your thing.” You have to define success and happiness for yourself; you can’t live for someone else’s definition of success and expect to feel fulfilled. That is the lesson we learned while making this record, and, boy, are we glad of it – we’re a lot less high strung now.

AE: In addition to lessons about personal success, what did you learn making the first three albums that helped to influence this fourth, very personal project?

Zilpha: We’ve learned a lot about ourselves as artists and a lot about our creative process. We feel like we’ve really hit a groove with being in the studio. There were times when it felt like work, but now studio hours just melt away because we’re having so much fun. The most important lesson we’ve learned from making three records is never to be married to a single idea or way of doing things. Experimenting is great, and being humble is even better!

AE: Were you listening to any other artists for inspiration when you were writing/recording this new album? 

Dania: We weren’t listening to other artists for inspiration, but as we were making the record, I’m sure the stuff on our iPods had an effect. Zilpha was listening to Tegan and Sara and I was listening to Fiona Apple and Dawes. Now that I’m thinking about it, the album does have a synth pop, confessional, classic folk/rock feel to it!

AE: What’s the creative process like between you both? What do you each musically bring to the duo?

Zilpha: Dania writes the songs and brings them to me. Then we work up harmonies and I add synths. As the resident music nerd, I do most of the arranging. Dania brings her love of poetry and knack for writing catchy melodies, and I bring a lot of theatre and nuance to her poems through harmony.

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AE: You’ve been receiving a lot of attention from fans on social media, especially Facebook. What’s that experience been like for you?

Dania: We feel like we suck at social media so it’s been really encouraging to be well received. Believe it or not, social media makes us feel really awkward, which is weird considering that we love being on stage! Maybe we’re just better at live interaction. Still, it’s been nice to know that some people have reacted positively to our music and online presence. Our favorite post to date read, “Tegan and Sara rip offs! But still amazing, I like it.” We thought that was pretty funny.

AE: Given such reactions that are so immediate and off the cuff, do you ever worry that the social media experience can sometimes get a little too personal? 

Zilpha: Yeah, it can definitely get too personal. As performers, we are all about “the show.” We draw the line at our personal lives. And yes, we’ve had some raunchy comments posted (which we won’t rehash now).

AE: Besides the raunchy, what’s something a fan may be surprised to learn about each of you?

Zilpha: Dania doesn’t read music and I have lost my synthesizer three times on the New York subway.

You’ve also been making major inroads in the LGBT community, playing special events and gay venues. Why is this community connection important for you?

Dania: Our music is a direct reflection of who we are as individuals, and we are committed to sharing our music with all of the communities that have contributed to making us who we are today.

Zilpha: As proud members of the LGBT community, we are always thrilled to make a musical and personal connection.

AE: How do you each identify as far as being LGBT?

Zilpha: We’re not much into labels. We are a happy couple trying to live a meaningful life and that’s enough for us.

AE: I asked some of your fans what they’d like to know about you both, and a few are wondering if you’re actually a couple?

Zilpha: We are. That’s a big part of why this project is so special to us.

AE: They also wanted to know who your favorite female artists are?

Dania: Bonnie Raitt, Tori Amos, Neko Case, Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, Heart, Stevie Nicks… the list goes on.

Zilpha: Fiona Apple, Tammy Wynette, Martha Wainwright, Neko Case…

AE: Has your sexuality or being a couple ever been an issue for mainstream audiences?

Dania: Not at all and we’re really happy about that. The best thing about art is that it breaks down boundaries and helps people find common ground. That’s why we love what we do.

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AE: On a recent podcast, you talk to a fellow Sarah Lawrence alum about why you chose music to express yourselves. I’d like to take that a step further by asking–if you weren’t making music, what do you suppose you’d be doing for a living?

Zilpha: As an unsigned and totally DIY act, we both have jobs to support this passion project. We’re pretty happy in our current day jobs, so I think we’d continue doing what we’re doing. I am in the accounting field and Dania works in the alumni office at our alma mater Sarah Lawrence. When we were younger, we spent a lot of time under the false impression that we had to dislike our day jobs because music was supposed to me our main squeeze. That’s just silly. You have to be happy in all aspects of your life if you’re hoping to maintain any one of them long term.

Dania: If we’re really dreaming here, I would run some sort of inn or camp in upstate New York.

AE: How did Sarah Lawrence–a notoriously LGBT-friendly college–help shape what you do? Have you worked with any other alums?

Zilpha: To put it simply: We love Sarah Lawrence College. It’s a great place all around. The academics were fantastic (Dania studied poetry and I studied economics and painting) and the liberal community was key in giving us our positive attitudes and our confidence.

Dania: Having grown up in rather traditional communities (the South and the Middle East) we both could have had a lot of stress about being gay. We were very lucky to spend those crucial college years at a place where we were supported and respected. Sarah Lawrence College (SLC) is a place where everyone is encouraged to be an individual, no judgment at all. We love that. Go SLC!

Zilpha: We have worked with our buddy and SLC alum Samantha Stark. She is a really talented video journalist. She made this music video for us for “Lucinda.”

The video also stars another alum and friend Liz Clark. We had a great time making the video and we love collaborating with SLCers.

AE: Any other artists you’d really like to collaborate with?

Dania: Noel Gallagher is the artist that made me want to write music, so playing with him would be a dream. I also wouldn’t mind singing a verse or two with Bonnie Raitt.

Zilpha: Neko Case.

AE: What’s your favorite venue to play live?

Dania: Arlene’s Grocery in New York City. We’re having our album release party there on November 9th. We love that place because the sound engineers are fantastic and the managers are really nice people.

AE: Being a couple, as well as musical partners sounds like it could be somewhat challenging at times – what are the biggest challenges to collaborating creatively? 

Zilpha: Since Dania does all the songwriting and I have no interest in songwriting we’ve never had conflict there. I love arranging music and Dania recognizes my strength in that area, so she lets me take the lead. The creative process in general has been pretty conflict-free because we are both very clear about our roles and what each person brings to the table. This has really made us feel secure and happy. Don’t get us wrong, we do argue (who doesn’t?), but we definitely couldn’t have kept this going for seven years if we were butting heads all the time.

AE: What’s your secret to making it work?

Zilpha: Our secret is that we love music and we love each other.

AE: This is one of those wacky Barbara Walters questions, perhaps, but if you were planning the ultimate live show with featured musicians (dead or alive) who are the top five acts you’d like to see play together?

Dania: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Tori Amos, Oasis and Neko Case.

AE: Besides your music, what are some of your other passions? Where can we find you when you’re not creating music?

Dania: I love fishing and doing anything that involves a lake and a cool breeze. I’m also big on cooking and hanging out with family.

Zilpha: I’m into web design and hanging out with our Boston Terrier Petunia!

AE: You mentioned a release party in November, but do you have any plans for a tour for this new album?

Zilpha: Definitely. Because we’ve got our day jobs, we’ll mostly do weekend mini-tours on the East Coast. And of course, you can always find us playing in New York City. One day we hope to be able to go on the road for months and months.

AE: OK, last question–what’s the best and most challenging thing about the other’s personality?

Dania: The best thing about Zilpha’s personality is her sense of humor. She makes me laugh all the time. Laughter is the best cure for any stress. The most challenging thing is that she’s stubborn.

Zilpha: The best thing about Dania is that she never gives up. The most challenging is that she is a taskmaster.

Find Starnes&Shah on Facebook or starnesandshah.com.

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